Democrats, GOP both threaten suit over Harford redistricting

Harford County Democrats rejected a deal that would have given them one seat on the panel that will draw new County Council boundaries, before the council voted to exclude the party entirely from the redistricting process.

Democrats, who trail registered Republicans in Harford County by fewer than 1,500 voters, are now planning a legal challenge to the county provision that led to their being left out. Party members became ineligible to serve on the commission when they did not pull 15 percent of the votes in the November council election and are now deemed a fringe party under the county charter.

Wendy Sawyer, chairwoman of the Democratic Central Committee, rejected what she called a Republican "backdoor offer" and insisted on the two seats traditionally reserved for Democrats. The proposal by County Council President Billy Boniface was aimed at preventing a Democratic lawsuit, she said.

"The redistricting committee should reflect the voters in this county," Sawyer said Wednesday. "We are nearly half the registered voters and a viable political party. Ignoring us shrieks of unfairness."

Boniface offered Democrats one seat on the commission over the weekend. At the Tuesday council session, he also faced threats of legal action from Republicans who demanded an all-GOP redistricting panel.

"I thought I was providing good middle ground so we could move forward," Boniface said. "But no matter what we did, both central committees have threatened to take us to court."

Scott DeLong, chairman of the Republican Central Committee, also threatened a lawsuit. He accused the Democrats of "throwing temper tantrums and using lawyers to fix their mistakes."

"The law is in place so that active participants can have a seat. This situation results from the Democrats' own failure to field candidates and their own lack of foresight in understanding the law."

After lengthy debate, the council voted 5-2 to appoint a commission of three Republicans, excluding Democrats from the two seats they would normally have held. Members said they had to adhere to the county charter. Democrats polled less than 12 percent in the council races, in which they did not field candidates for four of the seven seats.

Republicans could strengthen their local dominance by drawing the district boundaries for the next decade in Harford County, where Democratic power has waned considerably. Two decades ago, Democrats held nearly every elected seat in the county.

Boniface said he was aware the dispute was brewing two months ago but did not inform his council colleagues until recently, he said. He apologized but said, "That does not change what we ultimately had to do."

The county attorney and administrator had informed Sawyer by letter Dec. 15 that the council would not accept Democratic nominees to the commission, because of the low percentage of voters. Sawyer still submitted five names for consideration, claiming the charter was misinterpreted.

Boniface, a voting member of the council, who ran at-large and unopposed, should not be counted in the tally of votes, she said. If votes cast for Boniface are excluded, the Democratic total reaches nearly 22 percent.

Sawyer has asked Brown and Joseph Sandler, a lawyer for the Maryland Democratic Party, to prepare a lawsuit. Boniface said the effort will likely fire up both parties. The commission faces an Oct. 1 deadline to make its recommendations to the council.

"If the court stops the process, so be it," Boniface said. "I am more than glad to have a judge look at this issue. At the end of the day, the commission is an advisory board. It advises on how to draw the lines, but the council ultimately decides.

"And the council will do what is best for the entire county," he said.